Turning Leadership to a Young Man’s Best Advantage

March 8, 2014 at 11:41 AM 2 comments

I am a believer in Girl Power…but today’s reflection is on empowering young men, something of a lost art in an era of binary thinking. As our young women have grown, we have neglected our young men, especially children of color, and we owe them a chance to feel the power of being strong in their minds, their hearts, and their best intentions as leaders.

For several years, I taught advanced algebra in a small Special Ed classroom in an urban high school. The class typically comprised 10-12 young men of color between 17 and 19 years old. There may or may not have been a young woman in the class, never more than two. The students were typically quite astute in their ability to size up a situation, find their best interests, or cut their losses. Learning the math was rarely a problem.

Students who had been taught in relative isolation for up to 13 years often had a strong behavioral component to their learning style issues. One of the more striking aspects was the ability of cohorts of students to organize themselves around the mission of undermining instruction. And the usual mistake was to attempt to resolve the problem through punitive disciplinary measures…more isolation, more conflict with the ruling regime of adults.

But the reality of the situation was that there were true leaders among the students. They had realized that they were being under-served academically, but they were not prepared to fail quietly. So how does a school community come together to turn an emerging adult child’s natural leadership to his (or her) best advantage?

Some of the issues I encountered…

  • Gaining the trust of my students that I was on their side.
  • Reflecting on student choices to help them become more self-aware.
  • Getting beyond the survival mode and the solipsism that attends it.
  • Acknowledging the leadership inherent in self-directed behavior regardless of its positive or negative outcomes.
  • Engineering enough successes to break failure cycles.
  • Giving up my own ego needs for being the most visible leader in the room.

That last one was a revelation. I still led my classes, and I overheard one of my toughest customers whispering to a classmate, “Never mess with Kathleen on the math.” That was a relief, but I also sometimes heard, “Okay, it’s just us guys in the room…” Receding into the background was not a problem so long as the learning happened. Leaders needed a chance to choose their audiences and to get frank feedback to see themselves as others saw them.

Consequence-based discipline sounded right, but it had as a prerequisite that students have a vision of being successful. Young men trapped in failure cycles did not benefit from another chance to see the negative consequence of their actions or choices. In fact, such plans often motivated frustrated leaders to cut to the chase…to hurry up and fail and get on to the next item on the agenda. They could not see success as an incentive if they hadn’t experienced one in recent memory. I had to sort of drag a few students toward their own best interests.

In addition, manifestations of egocentric behavior tended to be more diagnostic of despair than indicative of an older child’s maturity. However, the two often went hand-in-hand. I was dumbstruck once when I encountered one of my students diligently moving through the school posting notices of a one-on-one basketball contest he had organized for later that day….WHILE THE SCHOOL WAS IN A LOCKDOWN  OVER A GUN SIGHTING! Basketball was his one strength, but he was not a team player. The contest was his one chance to show his stuff, and a stupid gun was not going to ruin his big day, He was still furious with me later for interrupting his progress. I finally found the words, “Being in the halls made you look like a suspect…and I do not want that for you.” He started to get it.

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Entry filed under: Special Education, Student Outcomes, Teacher Effectiveness.

Finding the Gestalt in Competency-Based Learning Open Letter on Newton Public Schools Capacity Issues

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